Should girls have to choose between being a ‘tramp’ and being ‘good’?

The idea that any expression of sexuality indicates mental problems or a lack of self respect does a disserve to girls. Alice Bolton

Concern over children being “sexualised” is fuelling parental social media activism again this week after a NSW mum’s complaint on Target’s facebook page about clothes that make girls “look like tramps” garnered over 50 000 ‘likes’.

But often when we talk about children and cultural “sexualisation”, the term is not clearly defined. Rather, it seems to incorporate a broad range of practices and cultural phenomena that are not necessarily linked, and serves to provoke fear and panic about any sexual expression – by girls, in particular.

In perpetuating the notion that clothing, dance, or any possible kind of sexual expression by girls should implicitly be seen through a lens of a media-and market-driven sexualisation, journalists, commentators, and some researchers are reinforcing negative stereotypes about girls’ sexuality — or the lack thereof.

This reinforces offensive and sexist binaries in the debate, which becomes one about differentiating between “good girls” and “tramps”.

Why so confused?

It’s apparent that we don’t yet have clear evidence of the effects of a sexualised media and consumer culture on children when we look at research and reports into children and their sexualisation. But in much public commentary, this lack of clear evidence is obscured by drawing broad connections between (overwhelmingly girl) children’s clothing, imitative behaviour (such as trying to dance like currently popular and sexy female artists) and large gendered social problems, such as body image and eating disorders.

Parents are warned of long-term damage to children’s self-esteem if they ‘buy into a sexualised image of themselves. Holly/Flickr

As one commentator quoted recently in Adelaide Now tried to warn us, parents should be aware of “the possibility of long term damage of their children’s self-esteem if they buy into a sexualised image of themselves.‘”

But as childhood scholars have recently pointed out, it’s counter-productive to propagate the idea that we can somehow clearly tell a “sexualised” child from a healthy child – a child who has bought into sexualisation or raunch culture as opposed to one who hasn’t. Especially not because of the clothes they want to buy from Target.

And it’s unhelpful to propagate the notion that sexualisation can be perceived as a clear and direct effect. But this is what happens when we uncritically describe a young girl’s clothing choices as evidence of her sexualisation. Or when we bemoan girls’ “self-sexualisation” on mobile phones and social network sites. Or when media commentators repeat sexist statements that girls today dress like “tramps” or dance like “strippers”.

Such statements are sexist and derogatory towards not just girls but all women and sex workers in particular.

Most of the available reports on the sexualisation of children suggest the need for more research. But there’s an even more urgent need – to better define our terms (as suggested in a recent literature review conducted for the commissioner for children and young people in Western Australia).

Sexualisation is too big an idea to usefully describe an object of study. We can’t study the effects of “cultural sexualisation” on children any more than we can study the effects of, say, “Web 2.0” as a whole. The word describes a broad social context, not a particular object, or a clear and direct effect. And that social context is one in which women’s bodies continue to be heavily objectified and commodified in visual culture.

Women’s bodies continue to be heavily objectified and commodified in visual culture. lamont_cranston/Flickr

While this should be of great concern to all of us (not just parents of girls), we must be very careful not to reinforce age-old binaries in our discussion about this issue between (asexual and innocent) “good girls” and (sexualised and deviant) “tramps”.

Girls under scrutiny

Part of the problem here is that, in this social context, there are currently not many forms of culturally and socially sanctioned femininity (or sexual expression) on offer to girls in the popular culture landscape.

Largely similar images of gyrating, scantily clad, mostly blond, skinny, and white females greet us on a variety of screens daily. As feminist scholars have argued, it’s difficult for us as social beings to work with anything but the tools in front of us — the symbols, signs, language, aesthetics and signifiers that circulate in our immediate visual media landscapes — when expressing ourselves, and communicating with others.

This is why those concerned with the sexualisation of children are pushing for a healthier media and consumer landscape, which would have a wider range of gender and sexual representations on offer. But it’s also why (until we do get closer to a more diverse cultural landscape) we need to stop perpetuating the idea that girls who engage in any way with the kind of hetero-sexy femininity so prominent in visual culture must be victims of sexualisation.

In a self-perpetuating cycle, feminine (flesh-revealing) clothes, “exotic” dancing at social events by young girls, and sexual self-imaging or communication through digital technologies are interpreted as evidence of low self-esteem and cultural victimhood. Other possibilities, such as sexual desire or interest, are shut down.

It’s a great disservice to girls if adult reactions and media panic convey to them the idea that any expression of sexuality indicates the existence of mental problems, low self-esteem, or a lack of self respect. These are the kinds of problems repeatedly associated with sexualisation in media commentary.

Whether it be what they wear, how they dance, or how they photograph themselves and their friends, girls’ behaviour is under close scrutiny. And those seeking to protect girls from the harms of media sexualisation are often too quick and eager to deem any such behaviour as “evidence” that girls have been damaged. In doing so, they merely reproduce offensive “tramp” versus “good girl” dichotomies.

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